Posts Tagged With: Education

Dumbing Down Judaism: Mibereshit’s Weekly “Values” Parsha Sheet

Weekly "Religious" Parshah Sheet

Weekly "Values" Parsha Sheet

Mibereshit is a Jewish education organization that aims to “strengthen the bonds between the Jewish people and their land, between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and between all Jews and their shared tradition by revealing our common foundation.” The group reaches out to secular Israelis and hopes to give them knowledge and connection to their tradition. One of their projects is a weekly Torah portion study sheet that parents and children can discuss together.

The sheets are colorful, well laid out, and packed with entertaining stories and games. They share a great deal of information about Judaism that might not otherwise get to secular families There is a lot to praise. None the less the weekly sheet raises concerning questions about how this organization is teaching Judaism and encouraging Jewish connection.

The weekly parsha sheet aimed at 6-12 year olds comes in two versions: a “religious” version and a “values” version.  Their website offers a sample of each.  The rest of this essay is a  reflection on the samples and what they tell us of Mibereshit’s approach to Jewish education.

In the secular world “values education” is an approach to learning that gives students thought provoking material and then asks students to use this material to bring unstated values to the surface and to reflect on how they prioritize values when conflicts occur. Although the “values” version is aimed at so-called secular Jews, it is not in any way “values” education In fact it would be best described as dumbed down Judaism.

In place of a direct encounter with the Torah and its interpretive tradition, the “values” version substitutes stories and sermonettes. Whereas the “religious” version introduces the reader to Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi’s interpretation of God saying “Let us make Adam (humanity) in our image” , the “values” version tells a story about a boy going back in time with the help of his grandfather’s diary. The religious version encourages children to get down and dirty with the text by matching visual riddles with verses from the parsha. The values version has a cartoon strip explaining that the moon is smaller than the sun because she got jealous of having another light (the sun) the same size as her.

Jews are people of the book. No serious engagement with Judaism, whether purely cultural or religious can happen without an engagement with the core texts of our tradition. If Mibereshit’s goal is to create an engagement with the tradition that pulls together all Jews it fails miserably. This kind of education essentially makes secular Jews into second class citizens. It implies that you have to be religious (whatever that means) to wrestle with the text directly. If you chose values over “religion” then all you are given is the interpretation of those core texts by someone religious.

A second problem with the values version is the way it conceives the link between the secular and the profane. In the story of the boy who goes back in time, he sees two scenes (a) the Beit HaMikdash with its musical instruments and copper vessels (b) a conversation between two of Cain’s descendents. Yuval, the music maker, and Yaval the metal worker are talking. They decide their work has nothing to do with Hanoch who talks to God. However, our little boy remembers seeing the Beit HaMikdash. He realizes that music, technology and prayer all came together in the Temple.

Recognizing that even seemingly secular things are needed in the Temple drives home the necessity of secular activities. If it weren’t for technology and music the worship in the Temple would be incomplete. However, it is also indicative of a religious outlook where God is only recognizable in formal religious institutions. It takes a Temple to make music and metalworking into something that is part of prayer. In reality though, God is everywhere. Music is a form of prayer. So is admiring the beauty of something. We don’t need a Temple to make the connection. We simply need an act of thanksgiving.

The formal institutions of religion more often divide than unite. Institutions need a human management. A human management must be chosen and recognized by humans. There is no conceivable way that a humanly managed organization can ever be anything except political. Human institutions are also bound in time and space. They cannot do all things for all people. At the end of the day one group will impose their will on another. The other group can chose to accept it or walk away. Even if they accept it they will be united in name only but separated at heart.

The capacity for prayer and awe, on the other hand unites us. Shared moments of beauty and wonder break down barriers. They help us recognize both the humanity and the divinity in each other.

The third problem is that neither the religious nor the values version encourages actual dialog with the text. The value version simply tells the child and parent what values Judaism teaches and hopes they will agree those values are wise.

The religious version encourages some discussion but then immediately constrains it. Parents and children are exposed to classic commentary by Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi, but they are never asked if they have their own additional interpretations.   They aren’t even asked what they think of Ibn Ezra, Rambam, or Rashi.

Dialog with text cannot happen unless people are free to question the text in their own way from their own perspective. Yet even the process of questioning the text is constrained. The reader is told “There are two important questions regarding the creation of man” rather than “these are two of many important questions we could ask, what are some other questions?” or “these are the questions that inspired Rambam, Rashi, or Ibn Ezra, what are your questions?” The bottom line message of this section is that “70 voices of Torah” refers to the fact that there are many historic commentators.

There is no hint of an alternate reading of “70 voices”, i.e. the idea that Torah is so rich that it can be defined and redefined by generation after generation. Each generation engages with the text in its own way and from its own reference point and still the text does not exhaust itself.

Any true engagement of Jews in Diaspora and Israel has to account for the fact that some forms of religious Judaism encourage personal engagement of the text.  Additionally, texts like the Torah belong to all Jews.  All Jews have a right and even responsibility to read them and personally engage with it on their own terms.  True shared engagement  requires a willingness to accept that we share a text but do not necessarily read it the same.   If we wish to bring everyone together around tradition we need to allow everyone to deal with the text directly and respect the diversity.

When all three issues are taken together, the underlying goal of the weekly parsha sheet is clear. Although it purports to build bridges and unite people in the name of a shared tradition, in reality, it is a subtle method of retaining controlling ownership of that tradition. Viewing the 70 voices of Torah as something solely in the past constrains the tradition and closes it to new interpretation. Teaching people to see God in institutions rather than through awe and wonder coupled with thanksgiving allows a political in-group to control how God is experienced and perceived. Handing warmed over interpretation to Jews and calling it “values”, ensures that no one who has rejected the authority of traditional religion even has a chance to directly encounter the text and form their own values based interpretations.

True bridges respect the integrity and equality of all parties. True Judaism seeks to help all Jews find a personal connection to their tradition and cultural heritage. There can be no true respect of a Jew’s personal and religious integrity without granting them equal access to core texts and an equal right to interpret them.

Categories: Exclusion of Jews | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Fathers Excluded from Ramat Gan Bat Mitzvah

Group Bat Mitzvah: 20 Girls in Ashkelon

When the sixth graders at Noam-Haro’e religious school in Ramat Gan celebrate their Bat Mitzvah, the fathers won’t be there. The school is excluding the fathers because the Bat Mitzvah celebration will include girls singing and dancing. Since these 12 year old girls will now be adults in the Halachic sense the school says that fathers can’t watch them.

Father Ram Gal and other fathers wanted to see and celebrate with their daughters, so Ram Gal’s wife approached the school with a compromise that would allow fathers to be present during the parts of the ceremony that did not involve singing and dancing. The school would not budge, so this Sunday morning, Ram Gal’s daughter had her Bat Mitzvah without her father present.

Ram Gal, who himself grew up going to religious schools, says he does not remember schools being so segregated when he was a child. He admits that the neighborhood around the school has changed in the last several years, but he feels the segreation policy is the result of a few vocal parents. His feeling is that the school’s policy does not reflect the desires of the “silent sane majority” of parents.

Ram Gal’s feeling that the religious schools are changing is not his imagination. Today 65% of elementary religious schools have some form of segregation, some starting as early as first grade and some starting in third or fourth grade. Just ten years ago, in the early ’00s, only 25% were segregated

This change not only annoys some parents, it also costs money and sometimes violates Education Ministry policy. Education Ministry policy is that classes should not be split up until there are more than 40 students per school. Schools with gender segregated classrooms split up students regardless of whether or not they have reached the 40 students even though this goes against policy. Segregated elementary school classrooms cost the school system an additional 11m NIS according to HaAretz sources.

However proponents of the segregated school insist that they are want parents want. The principle of one school told HaAretz:

The vast majority today accepts the separation because being a part of the Torah education system is a label. This population is truly leading today … The national-religious education system is a mirror of religious Zionism as a whole.”

With all sides claiming the majority, it is impossible to know who is correct. However, that may be beside the point. Rabbi Avi Gisser, head of State Religious Education Council, says the Ramat Gan school was mistaken and acted against the State Religous Education Council policy. The council believes Bat Mitzva events are meant for the whole family and is opposed to excluding fathers as was done by the school.

Mistake or not,Ram Gal was not able to see his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.


Related articles in Jacob’s Bones:

Categories: Extremism, Gender Segregation | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Dimona Girl Kicked out of School for Working at McDonalds with the Boys

The rooftops of Dimona

Efrat Daniel, in senior at Shalhevet HaDarom (“שלהבת הדרום“) High School in Dimona, has been suspended from school for the last three months because she worked at kosher McDonalds during the previous summer.

Dimona is a small desert town near Be’ersheva in the south of Israel known for its nuclear reactor and a settlement of black Hebrews. The population is diverse due to waves of immigrants who have settled there.  Because of the high number of immigrants,  the Jewish Agency educational has been actively involved in local educational projects. In 2008  the Dimona’s school system won the National Award for Excellence in 2008.

However Efrat went to one of the local semi-private Haredi run schools.  Haredi schools are private in the sense that they are allowed wide latitude in choice of curriculum and policy, but public in the sense that they receive state funding. Her school received 618,165 NIS from the department of education in 2010. Continue reading

Categories: Extremism, Gender Segregation | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The New Haredi Higher Education Initiative: Integration or Exacerbation?

Today the Israeli Council of Higher Education (CHE) announced that it plans to spend NIS 180 million ($48.5 million) over the next five years on programs to make advanced degrees more accessible to Haredi Jews.

The initiative includes scholarships, classrooms with separation walls between men and women, and remedial eduction. According to a recent survey by the Ministry of Education, only 40% of Haredi schools teach core subjects like Math and English past eigth grade. Vocational schools and colleges run by Haredim will also get additional funding grants so they can take on more students.

The CHE says that its programs will foster mutual respect and help the Haredim enter the workforce. But will it? And even if it will, is it the right way to go about this?

I think not.

We’re solving the Wrong Problem

First, it seems like it is pouring water in the bathtub rather than plugging the drain. Continue reading

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Gender Segregation | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Ex-Haredim to Sue Government for Not Requiring Core Subjects

Ma’avar (מ.ע.ב.ר העמותה לגישור והכוונה בין מגזרית) has decided form a class-action suit agains the government for the money and time lost by haredim that were not taught core subjects when they were in school Haredim who leave the community can not go to college unless they first complete the bagrut and psychometric exams. Those raised on Yiddish often have to learn two languages from scratch: English and modern Hebrew. Further, since they are past the age of normal education they must pay for and complete this education while working. Usually the only jobs available are low paying jobs that don’t require a degree.

On its facebook page Ma’avar put out a call to ex-haredim to join the suit:

את המדינה תביעת נזיקין בגין הנזק שנגרם למי שלמד בחינוך חרדי ללא לימודי מקצועות בסיסיים, בניגוד למחויבותה לאכיפת חוק חינוך חובה לכלל האזרחים.
כל מי שלמד בחינוך חרדי ללא ליבה, (גם מי שחרדי בהווה) והזדקק להשלים בגרויות או פסיכומטרי או שעדיין צריך להשלים, איבד שנות עבודה, או שנגרם לו נזק כספי אחר, מוזמן

Friends, we are prepared to file a petition against the government on account of the damaged caused by a Haredi education that did not include core subjects on the grounds that the country abandoned its obligation to enforce the compulsory education law for all its citizens. Anyone who studied in a haredi school without core subjects and who has lost years of work or money because of having or had to complete the bagrut or psychometric exam is invited to receive a form [to join the suit].

According to Ynet, Udi, who put out the call says he has received dozens of replys from people interested in joining the suit. Shlomo Leker, who also does work for Rabbis for Human Rights, has agreed to take the case pro bonot. Work has already begun drafting the complaint.

There is a long line of comments on the face book page announcing the complaint. One commenter, still inside the Haredi community said:

Even if this is something that won’t get us any money, it could raise awareness to the real problem. It’s unthinkable that haredi politicians tell the State not to intervene, while we pay the price. I am inside the haredi public and I am the first to stand up and say that we have suffered unprecedented injustice. If my parents had an acceptable haredi option in their neighborhood for math and English studies, they would have been happy to give it to me, but they didn’t. The State is clearly responsible here. I am 26 years old, I have two daughters and a mortgage to pay, I work hard, and at the end of the day I study fractions like a sixth grader and feel inferior. (Translation by Ynet)

According to a law passed in 2003, all state funded schools are required to teach core subjects: math, english, history, civics, language arts (grammar, composition, and literature) and religion. The language arts and religion requirements vary by social group: Arab schools may teach Arabic rather than Hebrew for the language arts requirement. Jewish schools study Bible for the religion requirement. Christians, Muslims, and Druze may teach their respective religions instead of Bible.

However, the law has never been fully implemented in the Haredi community and most Haredi children have grown up without core secular studies needed complete the examinations for college. In a recent Education Ministry survey released December, 2011. Only 30% taught civics, 39% taught Engish, 41% taught math and Hebrew literature, and 43% taught grammer.

From the very beginning the law was selectively enforced. Haredi schools continued to receive funding even though they failed to teach core subjects. When many teachers were fired or had hours reduced due to budget cuts, the Secondary Schools Teachers’ Association sued the Ministry of Education because it was giving $40 million to schools that did not teach core subjects. Under the 2003 law they were not supposed to receive funding.

They won the supreme court case, but this only resulted in a new round of laws. In July, 2008 the Knesset passed a law entitling ultra-Orthodox schools to 60% funding even if they didn’t teach core curriculum. In July, 2009, a second law was passed that forced local authorities to make up the difference for “unofficial registered schools” . This was code for ultra-orthodox schools as most, if not all, of the schools on this list were Shas and United Toarah Judaism (UTJ) schools.

The laws only enforcement mechanism was the power of the purse and these two laws removed or severely reduced the ability to financial pressure.

Not surprisingly this triggered another round of law suits. Professors Amnon Rubinstein and Uriel Reichman, as well as former commander of the IDF Education Corps, Maj. Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern sued the government to overturn the 2008 law allowing state funds to pay for schools that do not teach core curriculum. They have argued that a child cannot chose the education he recieves and therefore the state has to step in to protect them.

We are talking about children who are not being taught even minimal skills. There is a minimal education that every child must receive, without which he cannot develop his abilities or function in the modern world.” (Source: Israel HaYom)

The Israeli Supreme Court is currently deciding whether or not there are grounds to even hear the case.

There have also been legislative attempts to roll back funding of schools that refuse to teach core subjects. In December, 2011, MKs from four parties tried to get the Ministerial Committee to approve a law that would require Haredi schools to teach core subjects. The law was proposed by Einat Wilf (Independence) , Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi). It failed to get out of committee.

This lastest law suit by former students in Haredi schools adds a new twist to the legal battle. One of the strongest objections to the Reichman et al suit is that it is based on paternalism, one social group claiming to know what is best for another. Attorney Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Sha’arei Mishpat College is representing a group of Yeshiva students who are against the Reichman et al. Supreme Court petition. In December, 2010, HaCohen told the Forward that:

Haredim who do not establish careers are acting by “choice,” and that moves to change the community’s economic situation by placing demands on schools are “paternalistic.”

However, clearly, if there are students who feel that they were not given a choice, the paternalism argument falls. One of the core principles of democracy is that it must protect the rights of minorities. This includes minories within minorities, such as the students who eventually grow up and decide to live outside of the Haredi community.

Categories: Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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